Developing Cultural Competence in Physical Education: A How-To Approach for Elementary PE

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Today’s globalized society requires students to possess critical thinking, communication, socio-emotional, and language skills in order to collaborate with individuals from different cultural backgrounds.

Elementary health and physical educators are well-positioned to develop this cultural competence in physical education using Standard 4 and 5 of SHAPE America’s National Standards for K-12 Physical Education.

While these National Standards were developed in the United States, they are applicable worldwide regardless of culture, race, nationality, sexual orientation, and/or disabilities. In addition, today’s technology makes it easier than ever for health and physical educators to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues around the world.

Cultural Competence in Elementary PE

In elementary physical education, teachers can introduce a CULTURE (Cultural Unit of Learning to Understand, Respect, and Emphasize) framework, which uses games, activities, and technology to develop students’ cultural competence.

We provide more details about the CULTURE framework in the article “Developing Cultural Competence in Elementary Physical Education,” which was published in the February 2021 issue of JOPERD.

In September and October of 2019, we implemented the unit between an elementary school in New Jersey (123 students in grades 4-5) and two elementary schools near Tokyo, Japan (56 students total).

The design, implementation, and evaluation of the project were supported by three in-service teachers and four pre-service teachers in Japan, two in-service health and physical education teachers and five pre-service physical education teachers in the U.S., and four university professors — three from the U.S. and one from Japan.

Six-Lesson CULTURE Unit

Here’s a brief overview of how we structured our CULTURE unit (this can be modified depending on available time, resources and student backgrounds):

  • Lesson 1: Provide an overview of the unit and use a student-centered approach to decide what games and activities to share with the other school.
  • Lesson 2: Help students brainstorm and identify strategies for how they will overcome language barriers to communicate the name of their game, basic game objectives, equipment, rules, and safety procedures.
  • Lessons 3 and 4: Have students videotape, edit, and share the games and activities using available technology.
  • Lessons 5 and 6: Play the games and reflect on the experience.

Student Reflections

Overall, students from both nations had a positive experience in implementing a CULTURE unit.

The U.S. students chose a “backyard games” theme, such as Kan Jam, Spikeball, cornhole, bocce ball, ladder ball, Gaga, and hopscotch.

The Japanese students decided to share cultural pastimes, such as keidoro (a tag-like game), jankenpa (similar to hopscotch), nawa-tobi (rope skipping), koma (spinning top), sumo (wrestling), and origami (paper folding).

Unboxing supplies from our colleagues in Japan

Here are some of the comments that the students shared with their teachers after completing the unit:

From the American students…

  • I was amazed at the large jump rope and impressed that they are able to all jump together.
  • I love learning the games … and origami too.
  • I really enjoyed interacting with Japan and learning new things.
  • I liked being able to experience different games that I normally wouldn’t play.

From the Japanese students…

  • In American games, even non-athletic children can have opportunities to win games.
  • U.S. games require communications while playing.
  • I am very curious to see how American students like our games.
  • While many Japanese games and activities can be done individually, American games required cooperation.

7 Strategies for Health and Physical Educators

Here are some recommended strategies for practitioners who are interested in developing cultural competence in physical education using a CULTURE framework:

  1. Identify a collaborator. In our case, integrating university faculty members who have some connections in other countries and who were willing to get involved was key to facilitating this process.
  2. Use a student-centered approach. Allow the students to select the sports, games and/or activities that best represent their country, community, and/or school.
  3. Provide ample practice time for students to practice the motor skills, movement concepts, strategies and tactics, as well as the personal and social responsibilities associated with their sport, game, or activity.
  4. Select suitable technology, such as a storyboard, iPads, iMovie, Google Slides, Google Translate, and Google Drive.
  5. Use a sequenced approach for each lesson so students can understand and play their collaborating country’s games and activities.
  6. Take time for student reflection.
  7. Advocate for what you do and the value of physical education by sharing students’  comments about the CULTURE unit with key stakeholders.

As a result of a globalized society that values communication and cooperation from all parts of the world, it is important to foster and instill cultural competence in children at a young age — and physical education is an ideal setting to promote this increasingly important 21st century skill.

Additional Resources


Edward Olsen
Edward Olsen

Edward “Ted” Olsen is an assistant professor of the Physical Education Teacher Certification program in the School of Health and Human Performance at Kean University. His research focuses on policy, pedagogy, and teacher preparation in physical education. He can be reached via email.

Masanobu Sato
Masanobu Sato

Masanobu Sato is a professor in Faculty of Education at the Bunkyo University. His research focus is group dynamics and leadership in sport teams or learning groups/communities in sport management. He is also interested in cross-comparison of teacher education programs in different countries. He can be reached via email.

Emi Tsuda
Emi Tsuda

Emi Tsuda is an assistant professor of the Physical Education and Kinesiology program in the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences at West Virginia University. Her research focuses on physical education pedagogy and policy. She can be reached via email.

James Wyant
James Wyant

James Wyant is an assistant professor of the Physical Education and Kinesiology program in the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences at West Virginia University. His research focuses on technology and policy within physical education. He can be reached by email or Twitter.